Top tips… for next time around

Last week of classes for us lucky Canadians! Which, of course, means we finally get to breathe, sleep, and stop being zombies. ABOUT TIME.

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Longtime readers know I often get all nostalgic at this time of year (spring fever?), thinking back on the goods and the not-so-goods of the year passed, and thinking ahead to better-luck-next-time. This year, I started heading back to the teaching future early, thanks to a lunch date with my friend and colleague Kate. We were meeting to talk about Kate’s class, which I had observed early in March; ostensibly I was writing Kate a letter of support for her upcoming promotion, but in fact I really just wanted to pick her brain about the awesome ideas I got from sitting in on her class. (Thanks, Kate!)

I emerged from lunch newly energised – and at the perfect time, because: ZOMBIE. I needed to write down my thoughts immediately, so I thought, hey, why not start with a post on the blog?

As I was driving from lunch to my office I made a mental list of the five things that I think I’d like to try out next time (AFTER MY SABBATICAL! AFTER MY SABBATICAL! DID I MENTION I’M GOING ON SABBATICAL??!!!!), thanks to talking about teaching over soup and beet juice with Kate.

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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A group of Western University students warming up with artists Mina Samuels and Jacqueline Dugal during a recent workshop on campus. Photo by Julia Beltrano.

This wasn’t Kate’s idea, ok, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, and Kate reminded me of why. In her class, she set the tone for the whole period by pausing at the outset and marking the moment of beginning with some powerpoint slides designed to orient students, grounding them in the work ahead and helping them to understand where they had been, were now, and would be going. This kind of tone-setting is so useful, not least because it brings everyone together, in the space, as a community, and then prepares for the shared labour about to be undertaken.

When I teach studio classes I always begin with a warm-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as some yoga. Sometimes it’s a rousing game of “zip-zap-zop”. (That’s zip-zap-boing! to you Brits, thank you very much… although the Eastenders version is still kinda my favourite.) Maybe we might close our eyes and fall into each other, fear be damned.

The logic: studio classes are about body work, so let’s warm those old bodies up! But… seminar work is about our bodies, too! Which is to say: if we are tired, or poorly nourished, or stiff, our thinking is badly affected. So warm-up rules apply: let’s remind ourselves of the bodies that hold our brains, wake up our arms and legs, laugh a bit, share a moment. There shared knowledge begins.

2. Set ONE overarching outcome, in addition to the obvious

Kate and I talked about time management: how do we get through it all in just three hours per week? We talked about how much less content we teach now than when we started, 5 years ago, 10 years ago…. We talked about all the other things we want our students to take away – critical thinking skills; stronger research skills; better writing skills – that we feel like we just don’t have enough time to land fulsomely with them.

Then I said: hey, you know what? Maybe we only have time for ONE of those things, per class, per year.

We both went: “huh!”

So here’s my idea: set one outcome, a kind of ur-outcome, that rests above the other, more mundane ones that we have to include in our course outlines. Or maybe we don’t even put those other outcomes on the course outline (your mileage may vary, depending on your university’s policies, I know). Maybe we just write (for example):

In this course, students who commit to our shared labour will…

develop valuable teamwork skills, learning how to collaborate with others self-reflexively, and effectively.

And then we organise our assignments and in-class activities with that outcome in mind, trusting that the other stuff we’re expected to teach will come along with it – or will happen in another course in our program, because we’re labouring together, after all.

3. Write more, and more creatively, during class time

Kate and I both use versions of what I know as the “two-minute paper”, a chance in class to think while writing, and thus think/write before speaking.

My strategy: I pose a question about stuff related to whatever we’ve read/watched. I make the students write for two minutes before anyone can answer said question. I swear by this as a chance for students to gather their thoughts – whether or not they *actually* write stuff down – before I ask for replies, thus (among other things) circumventing the usual problem of the usual suspects raising their hands right out of the gate.

But the problem is this: some students don’t want to write in reply to the prompt/question. And often the students who DO want to write are the usual suspects. So it works… kind of.

Kate made me think about a couple of writing-related things during our lunch: first, that sometimes the best class writing might not be two minutes long. Sometimes it might be longer. Sometimes it might be five, ten minutes – in relation to an assignment, say, or maybe just reflecting on the state of affairs, the state of the day, how we’re all feeling. More time might be good time.

She also reminded me that, sometimes, the best writing is creative writing.

Academics often forget that we were once students. Students who found stuff academics find fairly familiar kinda… well… hard. Baffling. Frustrating. And when we were students, did we not want to express ourselves? Find ourselves? Discover our creativity, what we have to offer the world? Sure, it’s all very Dead Poets Society, but it’s also true: we are teaching young people who are struggling with big ideas and tired and looking for outlets to express themselves creatively whenever possible.

And that’s no bad thing.

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So maybe next year, my prompts will become less scholarly, and a bit more creative. That’s not to say they’ll stop being rigorous; they might just change their skin a bit, invite a bit more playfulness.

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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During the class of Kate’s I attended, several students came in late. Kate glanced toward the door (everybody glanced toward the door) as this happened, but mostly she let it slide.

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

So I asked Kate over lunch: what should we do about students who come in late?

We talked about the labour of calling them out. About how tiring it is, for us, to get angry or lay down the law (whatever that might be). We noted the emotional labour of teaching-as-is; it’s already a hell of a lot, and dealing with thoughtless latecomers is an extra pain in the ass.

(Full disclosure here: I’m pretty sure I was a thoughtless latecomer at least once in my undergraduate career, if not, oh, 17 times.)

So then we said: hey, what if we didn’t – just DID NOT – deal with it? What if, instead of calling it out or ignoring it, we just stopped?

What if we said, on the course outline, and at the outset (fair warning):

Hey! Sometimes you might be late. When that happens, we’ll just STOP. Stop the class. Stop talking.

Not to embarrass you (you might be embarrassed, but, hey, that’s not the goal, though it has fringe benefits…), but because talking through your disruption is tiring and unproductive.

So we’ll pause. When you’re settled, we’ll start again.

Hey, being late happens. It’s happened to all of us.

Maybe just don’t let it happen again, if you can help it.

5. Build in time for spontaneity

I’ve been teaching full time for 12 years now. Every year, every week, I over-prep. I prep because the prep is for me – to make sure I don’t run out of stuff to say. Because that would be a catastrophe, right?

Kate reminded me of something I’d forgotten entirely: sometimes, often, the best learning happens spontaneously.

How do we build in time for that? Maybe by sticking it in the prep.

I’m serious! I’ve started including “if this, then maybe this… or if that, maybe not” moments in my prep, to remind myself that I’m always, already, being responsive to my students’ input, and sometimes that means throwing the whole thing out. But mostly it means being willing to be at sea for a while, to see where the conversation goes.

Usually, if the conversation goes sideways, I scold myself for not getting through the entire plan in my prep.

But what if the conversation going sideways IS the best possible version of the prep? Maybe I need to make more time, and space, for that.

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Happy end of term!

Kim

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Present or else!

It’s spring break – that is, for everyone who attends or teaches in a grammar school in Ontario. This year I decided, along with several of my cycling friends who are grammar school teachers, that I needed a break break (I spent our Reading Week mostly working and fretting; it was not a break), so I decided to give my students a mid-March channel change. This week, they are working independently while I ride up a bunch of mountains in Table Rock, South Carolina. I’m on my bike 3-4 hours a day and otherwise sitting quietly, catching up on reading, eating (mostly) healthy and abundant food, drinking no alcohol whatsoever, and having a deep think.

One of the things I’m thinking about is the relationship between the assignments on my courses and student learning outcomes. How am I getting students where they need to be, on one hand, and where I want them to go, on the other? I’ve been considering lately how we might talk in new ways – to students, parents, administrators, and each other – about what social goods adhere to arts and humanities learning, and how those goods can be brought to bear on our “creative”, “information”, and “post-truth” economies (choose your adjective – I think they all mean similar things right now, alas). In particular, I’m wondering how we can start that process of revaluation inside the neoliberal university, encouraging administrators at the highest levels to recognise arts and humanities teaching as something to be better appreciated – both affectively, and fiscally – across faculty lines.

So, assignments. It matters what we ask students to do for marks, and not least because that impacts directly who can, or will, take our classes – students might want desperately to learn more about theatre, for example, but might not want to write a bunch of essays because a) they suck at them, b) essays aren’t valued in their home discipline, and/or c) they can’t afford to get a bunch of less than good grades on essays at which they believe they suck. (I recognise the inherent problem with fear of failure here, AND the problem with fear of learning new and hard things – but that’s another post.)

As I’ve been building my new Theatre Studies courses at Western (so far: intro to performance studies [“Performance Beyond Theatres”]; history of performance theory; a study abroad number called “Destination Theatre”), I’ve paid particular attention to alternative assignment submission structures. For example, this term students in both of my courses have the option of creating a traditional essay, a creative essay, OR an audio-video piece for their final projects. Research requirements are the same across all three, but the format options are designed to play to students’ individual strengths and interests.

One thing I’ve not managed to hack yet, though, is in-class presentations.

When I teach dramatic literature classes, I put students in groups and assign plays for scene study; sometimes we do these weekly, and sometimes we run scheduled scene study workshop days and show our labour all together. I’ve done both, each time incorporating Q&A sessions with each group, and they both work really well. The students learn deeply about the plays they are assigned, and they have the creative freedom (built into the assignment) to play around with the text, including the freedom to do a re-write or a physical theatre re-imagining of the work. Over the last decade, consistently students have returned again and again to their scene study texts over a semester or a year, doing superb things with them on essays, final exams, etc. The scene study assignments are both fun and win-win, where deep learning is concerned.

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OK, so this ain’t a scene study action shot. But it IS of my students – in last semester’s intro to performance studies – and they ARE making theatre (image theatre, to be precise). Plus, I just really love this photo. The students in the foreground are Olivia Helewa and Muhammed Sameer.

When I teach theory classes, however, I take a different approach. We’re learning a lot of challenging material, and all of it requires a knowledge of context. I scaffold assignments to help students figure out how to make sense of a piece of tough theory; I also invite research into social history and political context.

Right now, for example, my history of performance theory group are doing three short reflection papers. One asks them simply to “explain” the key ideas in a work – that’s it. The second asks them to “apply” the theory to something they’ve recently seen, live or on-screen. The third asks them to “expand” a theorist’s ideas by challenging, or pushing further, one of the more controversial aspects of the theory. They are also each required to do one in-class presentation on one theorist, offering social and political background to help us ground the theorist and their writing in space and time.

In the main, the presentations this year have been fine but not stand-out. The problem, of course, is that students find presentations stressful – and then they speak too quickly, or try to cram in too much information, and so on. They are worried they’ll miss some key point to do with the history; they are worried they won’t get through everything in 10 minutes; they are new to the material and thus unsure about everything they are saying. They are mighty nervous, full stop.

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Yup: sorta like that nervous.

I assign presentations of this sort in part to test this kind of stress; after all, many jobs require human beings to present material they have studied and/or know about in front of other human beings who do not know about it (yet). So learning to present comfortably and successfully in front of a group is a very, very transferable skill – and performance classes should teach it.

And yet. I’ve started really to question my use of the bog-standard context presentation this year. How much value is it adding to student experience in the class overall, and to the arsenal of students’ knowledge about themselves (or even about performance theory!) in particular? This isn’t a public speaking class; I don’t have the time in thirteen short weeks to cover the last 2000 years of thinking about drama and live performance, and to help students become stronger public speakers.

At least, not in this format I don’t.

Which is why, as I’ve been sitting here and gazing out at the Appalachians, I’ve been wondering about presentation alternatives.

The stress that builds up around scene study work is different from the typical public speaking stress I see in one-on-class presentations: it’s creative stress, it’s about anticipation rather than fear or dread, and it tends to be shared among group members in ways that usually work to alleviate rather than ramp up panic. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s ultimately more productive stress than the other kind: it encourages students to work in teams to support each others’ emotional and creative needs, and it requires both resourcefulness and flexibility, rather than just Wikipedia-trolling skills. These are, as my colleague and friend Barry Freeman argued in a recent reflection on the future of theatre studies teaching and learning (in the “Views and Reviews” section of CTR 161), exactly the kinds of skills we as theatre instructors need to provide for a range of learners – they are even more transferable, arguably, to both work and life, than the basic skill of “public speaking”.

I’m now trying to imagine how to incorporate more of my dram lit scene study model into my theory classes. I’m envisioning a “workshop” format for next year’s history of performance theory, in which every couple of weeks groups of students present a scene from a play or another piece of creative work designed to model two or three key ideas from the theorists we are studying. Or maybe I’ll trial a capstone format, where in the last week of class groups of students present creative material they’ve developed in response to one theorist’s work – a scene study, a manifesto, or a theorist “update” for the twenty-first century.

As usual, I’ll be polling this year’s class for their input at the end of the semester. Meanwhile, though, if you teach theory classes, and have creative ideas for in-class presentations, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Kim